Consuming Christ (Mar 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Al Maxey

Jesus informed His fellow Jews assembled in the synagogue at Capernaum, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him” (John 6:53-56). This particular passage has greatly confused people down through the centuries, and has led to some rather bizarre theories, including the idea, among some early pagans, that Christians were cannibals, having stolen the body of Jesus from the tomb, hidden it away, and then assembling to consume it in some hideous ritual. This statement even confused those who actually heard this whole teaching from the lips of Jesus Himself on that occasion. “The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?'” (vs. 52). “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?'” (vs. 60). “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore” (vs. 66).

It is common practice to equate the eating of His flesh and the drinking of His blood with the consuming of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. After all, during the final Passover meal with His beloved disciples, our Lord “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins'” (Matthew 26:26-27). The apostle Paul repeated this teaching in his letter to the Corinthian brethren (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). To many disciples, therefore, it seems a logical leap from the teaching of John 6 to the consuming of the elements within the Lord’s Supper. But, is this really what Jesus had in mind when He spoke to the people in Capernaum that day? Or, was there something else He sought to convey to these assembled with Him in the synagogue?

Let’s not overlook the fact that when Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood” (vs. 54, 56), this is phrased in the Greek present tense. In other words, this is something He envisioned the people being able to do right then, and not something exclusively reserved for future disciples. This statement was clearly made prior to the shedding of His blood on the cross, and prior to the establishment of the new covenant church. Thus, the Lord’s Supper had not been instituted. Nevertheless, He speaks of them needing to consume (present tense) His flesh and His blood. In John 6:58, when He informs the people, “The one eating this bread will live forever” (see also vs. 57), He once again uses the Greek present tense. Therefore, He was not necessarily looking to a future event, but simply describing what these Jews needed to accept right then. This, of course, would not have been the Lord’s Supper. The use of “the present tense is noteworthy, since it refers to present possession and its continuance” [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John</i>, p. 492].

The Greek word translated “eat” (vs. 54, 56, 57, 58) is “trogo,” which means “to crunch, eat, take food, partake of a meal.” The Greek word used in verse 53, however, is a different one. It is the word “phagomai,” which suggests a “devouring, consuming; a feasting upon.” This particular word is used in the aorist tense, indicating something that occurs at a specific point. In other words, at some particular point, these people were to “devour” this divine Bread of Life. They were to “feast upon” the Faithful One of God. They were to consume the Christ; masticate the Messiah! Again, this was something they were to do then, not a looking forward to the time of the Lord’s Supper in the church of Jesus Christ. Such a forward look would have had no real spiritual significance for those Jews that day in Capernaum. Jesus obviously had a much more immediate meaning in mind.

The Greek word which is translated “drink” throughout the text of John 6 is “pino.” It means “to drink, imbibe.” It should be noted that it appears as an aorist in vs. 53, but in the <i>present tense</i> elsewhere in the passage. Thus, its grammatical presentation is consistent with that of its companion word “eat” (discussed above). “In the protasis the two verbs ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ are properly aorists, because only one act of reception secures life” [Lenski, p. 492]. This would certainly tend to argue against a future event where this life must be time and again secured by some action (as per the Roman Catholic view of the Sacrament of the Eucharist).

As previously noted, our Lord’s discourse that day in Capernaum was a difficult one for many of the Jews to digest. Indeed, it led to quite an argument among them. In John 6:41 we find them “grumbling about Him” because of His teaching that He was the Bread from heaven. However, in John 6:52 we discover this grumbling has become far more heated. “The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?'” The Greek word that is used in vs. 52 “represents a more vigorous demonstration of their difficulties” with the teaching of Jesus than the Greek word employed in vs. 41 [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 267]. The problem was: their minds were simply not operating on the same spiritual plane as the mind of Christ; their focus was carnal. “Those who are carnally minded are apt to put a wrong sense upon the words of life, to their own undoing, yet the Lord does not alter His words to meet the moral difficulties present to their minds” [ibid, p. 280]. The people “took literally the figure of eating His flesh. Unless one has spiritual perception, spiritual truth makes no sense whatsoever” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 77]. The discourse of Jesus with Nicodemus (John 3) is another good example. Paul faced this same challenge with the Corinthian brethren — “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to carnal” (1 Corinthians 3:1), for “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

The incredulous people that day in Capernaum “seemed to be unable to rise above the natural. Our Lord’s words were clear enough. But the sneering legalist exclaims, ‘Eat His flesh!? It is absurd! How can a man give us His flesh to eat?!'” [Dr. H.A. Ironside, Addresses on the Gospel of John, p. 262]. David Lipscomb wrote, “The Jews in the grossness of their nature could not perceive the spiritual truths and so murmured over the impossibility of the truths” [A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 101]. I like the way Larry Deason stated it in his book: “The Jews, being contentious, are non-receptive toward Jesus and His teaching. They were evidently displeased with the whole sermon. Therefore, being the literalistic materialists that they were, they rejected Him and grumbled against Him. It was not the hardness of the discourse that caused the disciples to find fault; rather, it was the hardness of their hearts!” [That You May Have Life, p. 176-177]. <br><br>Part of the difficulty these literalistic, materialistic, spiritually immature people had that day was somewhat understandable in light of the prohibitions of God’s Law with respect to drinking blood or eating flesh in which the blood still remained. This was a practice absolutely abhorrent to them. Not perceiving the figurative nature of our Lord’s discourse regarding the “flesh” and “blood,” they naturally took His words to be literal, and in so doing totally missed the point He sought to convey by these very striking figures. There are at least seven passages in the Pentateuch alone which strongly condemn consuming blood: Genesis 9:4</a>; Leviticus 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:10-14; 19:26; Deuteronomy 12:15-25; 15:23. God makes it very clear in these passages that anyone who consumes blood will be “cut off from among the people.” The consequences, therefore, were very severe. When this sin was committed, it had to be atoned for (1 Samuel 14:31-35). Such consuming of blood was perceived as a sign one had fallen from a relationship with God and turned to idols (Ezekiel 33:25). We see this abhorrence persisting even into the Christian era, with “abstaining from blood” being one of the decrees issuing forth from the Jerusalem Council in 50 A.D. (Acts 15:20, 29). Therefore, we can perhaps better understand why the Jews that day in Capernaum, taking the teaching of Jesus literally, were greatly offended, and why some withdrew from Jesus altogether, refusing to walk with Him any longer (John 6:66). Like too many unperceptive disciples even today, they had completely missed the point of Jesus’ message, being much too disposed to legalistic, literalistic thinking.

This viewpoint of the Jews in Capernaum, believing Jesus to be referring to a literal consuming of flesh and blood, has actually been given a name in theological circles. It is characterized as the “Capernaitic Mode,” a belief that still persists among those disciples who believe that the literal flesh and blood of Jesus can be, and should be, consumed by His followers in some manner if they are to receive eternal life. Such a carnal perception eventually led to the much debated and denounced doctrine of “Transubstantiation.”

Jesus, of course, was not referring to a literal eating of His actual body and blood. Such would have served no logical purpose, and would indeed have been abhorrent both to man and God. In marked contrast to any type of Capernaitic consuming of the flesh and blood of Jesus (which would involve some form of sacramentalism), our Lord’s intent was a spiritual consuming of His flesh and blood. It is a consuming accomplished by faith. Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote, “The eating and drinking is nothing but believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His flesh and blood for me. … Therefore the eating is done with the heart and not with the mouth. … Therefore you see plainly that these words are not to be understood of the Sacrament of the Altar.” Actually, Jesus was simply seeking to convey to His hearers that day the glorious truth that by taking Him into their very being in an intimate way, they would become recipients of life itself. “‘Eating and drinking’ is the best possible figure to express the assimilation of one body by another, whereby life is transferred from the eaten to the eater” [Larry Deason, p. 177].

Jesus, in His beloved Sermon on the Mount spoke of those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and stated they would be filled (Matthew 5:6). In John 7:37, He issued this invitation, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.” Although water is the far more common substance for consumption given in such statements, the significance of blood in John 6 is clear. The life of the flesh is its blood (Genesis 9:4). “The life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Jesus uses all three of these words (life, flesh, blood) in His discourse to the people that day, and they should have made the spiritual connection. Jesus Himself was the bread sent from heaven that “gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Those who ate the manna in the wilderness later died, but this bread (i.e., Jesus: the bread of life) would bring eternal results. “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Coming to Jesus in belief/faith is specified as the very means of satisfying this spiritual hunger and thirst. By faith they would consume the bread of life, and in so doing have life.

Some of the people had trouble with the figure of bread (John 6:41), and grumbled. But, when Jesus evolved His discourse from bread to flesh/blood, they went crazy (John 6:52). His point, however, was that in His human incarnation (having come in the flesh), the Life of mankind had come to dwell among them (John 1:4), and in His shed blood (His atoning sacrifice as the Passover Lamb of God) Life won the victory over death. Unless we make the reality of His life and death our own, we have no life! Thus, the eating of the flesh and drinking of the blood of Jesus simply signifies to internalize the benefit of His life and death, making it a part of our very being! This is not done through eating the elements of the Lord’s Supper (although such partaking symbolizes this reality to some degree), but is done by faith in Him. This active, obedient faith in Him, which motivates us to live for Him in our daily walk, submitting to His will for our lives, is not only personally transforming, but life-giving.

David Lipscomb wrote, “The germs of eternal life are implanted in the heart through faith in Christ Jesus. These germs need to be treasured and cultivated that they may bear fruit in the resurrection” [Lipscomb, p. 100]. “To make His will our will and to live according to His will is to eat of His flesh and drink of His blood — make His life our life. To do this is to eat His flesh and drink His blood” [ibid, p. 101]. He summed it up this way: “Unless they made His life their life, they would have no life!” B.W. Johnson, in The People’s New Testament with Notes, said, “The Bread of Life, our Crucified Lord, is appropriated (eaten, made our own) by faith” [p. 352]. Dr. H.A. Ironside observed, “To eat of the Bread of life is to receive Him in faith. When we recognize in faith that His precious blood poured out on the cross has atoned for our sins, then we are eating His flesh and we are drinking His blood. As we feed in faith upon the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we lose our appetite for everything that is unholy. That same precious body and blood will be our meat and drink through all the days to come, and when we get to yonder glory we shall still be occupied with Him, the Lamb that was slain” [p. 264-265].

“As eating and drinking receive food to be assimilated in the body, so believing receives Christ with the atonement made through His sacrificial flesh and blood. But the figure is less than the reality, for bodily eating only sustains life already present, while spiritual eating (or believing) expels death, bestows life, and sustains that life forever” [Lenski, p. 494]. “To eat and to drink means to be spiritually joined to Jesus, the Son of Man. Our souls embrace Him and His sacrificial death in faith and trust, and He embraces us” [ibid, p. 496]. “Eating and drinking denote the reception of this death and sacrifice by faith” (ibid, p. 497). “It is a figure of belief, for no one will eat what he cannot trust to be edible. To eat a meal implies that it is nourishing, wholesome, and real. This verse introduces the concept of Jesus’ vicarious death, the sacrifice of His body for the sins of the world” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 77].

“The life of Christ is the nourishment of the real life of man. … ‘Eating of the flesh,’ then, would mean acceptance of His humanity, of the manifestation of the eternal love in the Son of Man; and ‘drinking His blood’ would mean entire mental assimilation also of the terrible culmination of His mission in violent, sacrificial death. … The ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ are therefore phrases which portray the very intimate and very close form of that contact with, and dependence upon, the incarnation and the sacrifice of the Son of God. … This life is received through faith. Our Lord uses the terms ‘eating His flesh’ and ‘drinking His blood’ as interchangeable with believing in Him” [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 281].

Is there any connection at all with this teaching of Jesus in John 6 and our present observance of the Lord’s Supper; the eating of the bread and the drinking of the fruit of the vine? If there is, it is only in the most remote possible sense. Yes, we do eat the bread and drink the contents of the cup in remembrance of the sacrificial giving of His flesh and blood at Golgotha, but these repeated reminders of His gift in no way impart life to the participants, but rather are memorial celebrations by those already possessed of that life by having consumed Christ by faith. “There is no hint that Jesus was at this point instituting a sacrament or that the celebration of the Eucharist carried with it intrinsic saving power” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 78]. “We must now answer the question whether this discourse deals only with the spiritual eating of faith, or with the oral sacramental eating in the Lord’s Supper. We reply: only with the former” [Lenski, p. 502]. “It is inconceivable that Jesus should urge upon these unbelieving Galileans a sacrament not yet instituted and urge upon them the sacramental eating of which no one could know until the institution had taken place” [ibid]. Dr. Ironside correctly noted in his book, “Sacraments do not give life!” [p. 264]. Adam Clarke declared, “This can never be understood of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” [Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 5, p. 563], even though this has been the official interpretation of the Catholic Church for centuries. “From the time of the synodical epistle of Pope Innocent I (417 A.D.), the Latin Churches have interpreted the passage, ‘Except you receive the Eucharist, you have no life in you'” [Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, p. 268].

“Our Lord does not, as some imagine, refer here to the Lord’s Supper, (1) because this ordinance had not then been instituted, and the people could not possibly have understood His reference to it; (2) because it is not true to say that every one who partakes of the Lord’s Supper either has or shall have eternal life; (3) and Roman Catholics, who insist upon this interpretation of the text, are not consistent, by denying the cup to the laity, though ‘drinking His blood’ is expressly declared to be as essential to life as ‘eating His flesh'” [ibid]. For the sake of accuracy, however, it should be noted that in recent years the cup has been restored to the laity in many places. Also, many Catholic theologians will insist that the partaking of either bread or wine has the power to impart the grace of life. Nevertheless, I believe those who view John 6 as supportive of a sacramental eating and drinking in the Eucharist are mistaken.

As an interesting side note, archaeologists have identified Tell-Hum as the site of ancient Capernaum. In their exploration of that site, the ruins of an ancient synagogue have been found and excavated. This may well have been the very synagogue where Jesus had the above discourse with the Jews. To make it even more interesting, a stone block was found in the synagogue upon which was engraved a pot of manna. Jesus and these Jews might literally have had this carving in their view as He spoke that day of the manna in the wilderness, and how He was now the Bread of Life come down from heaven. It is my prayer that some that day perceived the spiritual significance of His message, and that disciples of Christ today, as well as all genuine seekers, may perceive the need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of God’s precious, beloved Son in simple, trusting faith, for “he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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